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Vigilantes R US: Private enterprise takes over

Rat Book UK offers chance to "fry" ne'erdowells

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British netizens worried about the proximity of their nearest rapist, murderer or paedophile can sleep easier in their beds this week, safe in the knowledge that recently upgraded website the Rat Book, will tell all.

On the other hand, those concerned about an imminent rise in local vigilantism may be a little uneasy that private enterprise has stepped in where government has resolutely refused to tread – and begun to publicise the names and personal details of convicted criminals on the internet.

According to its own blurb the Rat Book is "the UK's leading name and shame website".

They claim that their site is "the result of 18 months development and over 80,000 hours research, designed to expose paedophiles, abusers, rapists, perverts, violent criminals, and terrorists across the UK".

Lest readers be concerned that the innocent might find themselves added to the present tally of some 13,238 criminals, Rat Book is quick to reassure: "Criminals listed... are convicted in a UK court of law unless otherwise stated." Information is sourced "from media outlets across the UK, including local, regional and national news as well as court reports and police reports".

While the Rat Book is keen to avoid any suggestion that it may be encouraging its readers to take the law into their own hands, they firmly believe that "you have the right to know about criminals living and operating in your area, and that through awareness, you can improve the safety of your family".

For those who find the pull to vigilantism just too strong, the Rat Book provides a gruesome little game called "punish the criminals" in which visitors can sit one of the UK’s top ten vilest crims in an electric chair and, by clicking on a red button, make them "fry". The line-up is heavily weighted towards the celebrity end of criminality, and includes Chris Langham, Paul Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) and Abu Hamza - as well as an evil-looking youth called Christopher Williams.

El Reg spoke with David Hooper, Media Partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain about the site. He had grave concerns about the site’s viability.

He explained: "I believe this site is opening its owners and management to a complete legal minefield, well-intentioned as they doubtless are and seeing themselves as providing a popular service. There are conceivably risks that they could find themselves the wrong end of a libel suit - there could be privacy risks, data protection risks as well as possible issues in relation to the rehabilitation of offenders."

In general, he identified two distinct issues for the organisers of the Rat Book, both results of it being a private, rather than state, initiative. According to Mr Hooper, a secure legislative base would provide for immunity from many of the perils outlined above.

He warned: "Private enterprise not only runs the risk of breaching data protection rights but, as private enterprise, they do not have access to the sort of up to date information they need, because they can’t get into police or government databases."

As an example of a practical problem, he instanced a situation where there was a successful appeal subsequent to the initial recording of an offence on site and they failed to catch it. The site would then be maintaining publicly information that is possibly libellous.

Such a problem would be much reduced if a site were based on, say, the Sex Offenders’ Register, which is regularly updated, and maintained by central government.

While Mr Hooper was concerned with a possible negligence claim, due to the (in)accuracy of the information held, he also felt the site operators might be liable for some of the consequences flowing from the operation of such a site – for instance, "if someone lobs a brick through the window of a named individual".

On the other hand, it would be that much harder to bring the operators of such a site to book if it were run from abroad: The Rat Book refused to tell us where it is based.

Mr Hooper suspects that the site may have popular appeal. However, government has steadfastly resisted similar demands for publication of details of known sex offenders. The furthest it has yet gone in implementing what is widely known as "Sarah’s Law" is a pilot exercise this year which would allow individuals to access any seriously adverse criminal history in respect of a new partner.

A spokeswoman for ACPO added: "This is understandably an area of intense public interest, but there is a danger when the legitimate right to know crosses over into taking matters into public hands. There are well documented instances of unsubstantiated or malicious accusations, mistaken identity, or misunderstandings leading to the persecution of innocent people.

"It's a basic principle of civilised society that public protection is best served by an evidence-based approach led by law enforcement authorities whose activity is properly scrutinised and who can be held to account."

Responding to these criticisms, a spokesman for the Rat Book repeated their opposition to vigilantism, pointing out that their views are clear in the website and terms and conditions, and strongly opposing the idea of citizens taking the law into their own hands and/or any type of vigilante behaviour.

They are well aware of the accuracy issue, but emphasised that they have a team working full time to ensure they stay as up to date as possible in terms of convictions, charges and so on: information comes from trusted publicly available articles and sources.

Their spokesman added: "The Rat Book is merely collating this information and putting it into one place. We won't accept any more responsibility than these sources would. Criminals are convicted in a court of law unless otherwise stated within the article, and we will not publish accusations which are not backed up by a legal charge or conviction."

Our thanks to regular reader Graham Marsden for alerting us to the fact that this site has recently "come alive". ®

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